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People: Interview with Jens Sejer Andersen, founder of anti-corruption organisation Play The Game

Published in Sports Management 04 Apr 2016 issue 117
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Andersen launched Play the Game in 1997
Andersen launched Play the Game in 1997

“We’ve definitely played our part in shining a light on FIFA’s dark side, but it’s for historians to decide whether our role contributed 5 or 25 per cent of it,” says Jens Sejer Andersen, international director of Play the Game, an organisation dedicated to strengthening the ethical foundations of sport.

Play the Game was founded in 1997 by a group of Danish sports journalists and academics aiming to improve democracy, transparency and freedom of speech in international sports. Through its biannual Play the Game conference – and a plethora of other activities – the organisation’s mission is to create networks and partnerships across national borders and professional boundaries and to facilitate debates on the challenges faced by an increasingly globalised sports sector.

Funded entirely by public money and operated as an independent arm of the Danish department of culture, Play the Game has become a place for sports professionals – and anyone wanting to improve the governance of sport – to gather, swap ideas and discuss problems they have encountered within their roles working in sport.

“At the beginning our aim was to simply improve sports journalism, to make it more inquisitive, rather than fight corruption,” Andersen says. “But you could say that reality pushed us in another direction.”

TROUBLEMAKERS
What started as an initiative to improve sports writing has become a forum at which the threats to – and weaknesses of – global sport are openly discussed. When it comes to lifting the lid on malpractice at sports organisations, Play the Game has a proud record. Andersen says most of the individuals unearthing inconvenient truths have attended a Play the Game conference at some point.

“I know we have served as a source for inspiration and encouragement for the likes of (investigative journalists) Andrew Jennings and Declan Hill as well as whistleblowers such as Sandro Donati, (former athletics coach and Italian Olympic Committee member) and Mario Goijman (former president of the Argentine Volleyball Federation).”

“For years these people were labelled as troublemakers and had a hard time being heard or believed. Throughout that time we welcomed them to air and share their views, so you could say we became the home for the homeless questions about sport.”

WIDESPREAD PROBLEMS
While the revelations at FIFA – and more recently at the IAAF – have been at the forefront of headlines dealing with bad governance, Andersen says the problem is more widespread. “FIFA isn’t the only problem child – there exists a wider challenge to sport in general,” he explains.

“The main problem is that sport, thanks to its attractiveness to the masses, can be a very valuable commodity. It is a commodity, however, which isn’t sold like other goods. It’s not dealt in by commercial businesses, but by associations, which often aren’t subject to the same legislation, governance and scrutiny as ordinary businesses.

“The problem is that sports rights holders shouldn’t really be treated as associations, especially when they start making international, big money deals. Unfortunately, we’ve seen how the association structure – which often protects it from scrutiny – can become a shield for all kind of malpractice,” Andersen says.

He adds that while there are a number of Olympic sports with well documented issues, there are many more which have yet to be discovered. “You sometimes wonder whether the only reason there aren’t more sports federations and associations being exposed is that no one has looked at them yet.”

EVERYONE ON BOARD
For Andersen, corruption and bad governance at international sport federations aren’t merely an unfortunate outcome of a weak structure. They are the result of deliberate actions from “a number of very intelligent and smart sports business people”.

Therefore, it isn’t enough to simply adjust the structures of the federations. “You have to replace the old generation with new people,” he says. “Sport needs people who haven’t been infected by the virus of greed that we’ve seen over the past 30 years.”  

Andersen adds that striving for good governance is everybody’s responsibility – from grassroots up.

“No matter what your role is within sport, you have the opportunity to ensure sport is what it should be – a force for good,” he says. “Be brutally honest with your own organisation. Look at it with an outsider’s eye – or invite outsiders to have a critical look at how things are run.

“It’s also important to learn to appreciate discussion – and not regard any critical questions as attempts to kill the organisation.

“Any sports director who believes that it would be unfortunate to publish the organisation’s accounts, should reconsider their position.”

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